7.5 Home Visitor Safety

What Is It?

Feeling safe—and knowing how to maintain personal safety—is essential for home visitors. Home visitors who are anxious or fearful will have trouble creating a comfortable and emotionally safe environment for families during their visits. Feeling safe is crucial to a home visitor’s effectiveness; achieving this takes careful attention and good planning.1

You can work with other program administrators and your local community resources to implement policies, procedures, and strategies that can contribute to home visitors’ and families’ safety in unsafe situations. As you put safety plans and measures in place, keep the following concepts in mind:2

Sometimes situations arise that pose some degree of risk to the safety of family members and home visitors.

Since erratic, unpredictable behaviors can be characteristic of people in crisis, a crisis presents some risk to the safety of those involved in the situation. The potential for physical harm exists in any emotionally charged crisis. That potential should never be overlooked or discounted by staff.

Home visitors’ skills in handling a potentially dangerous situation shape intervention decisions.

Sometimes, home visitors find themselves faced with, or caught up in, a family situation that is too complex or too dangerous for them to address directly. At such times, it is critical for them to recognize the situation is beyond their intervention abilities and to discuss alternatives with their supervisor.

Family situations (or family histories) involving child maltreatment, spouse abuse, domestic violence, emotional disorders, criminal acts, and/or substance abuse may require special safety measures.

The best predictor of impending danger is behavior. Safety measures are called for if a family member's current or past behavior includes violent/abusive acts, threats of harm, criminal activities, the use of addictive substances, signs of a serious emotional disorder, or threats of suicide. These measures are needed at several points in the intervention process: before face-to-face visits with the family, during face-to-face visits, and as part of referral and follow-up services.

Home visitors must always be aware of behaviors and situations that signal danger.

Some violent incidents may be predicted, but many helping professionals fail to recognize the signs of potential violence. Signs of loss of control and impending danger are not limited to expressions of anger and hostility. Instead, some signs include sensing that a situation is dangerous; knowing the family has access to guns or other weapons; awareness of violent acts or threats by family friends or relatives; and mounting tension, irritability, agitation, brooding, and/or limit-testing witnessed in family members.

Home visitor safety can and must be addressed at many levels.

The threat of violence does not occur only in the homes of families, or in high-crime neighborhoods, but also in the seemingly secure surroundings of the workplace. Home visitors must be and feel safe if they are to support families. Work conditions favorable to violence prevention require action at management, supervisory, and personal levels.

  1. Rebecca Parlakian and Nancy Seibel, Help Me Grow Home Visitor Curriculum (Cuyahoga County, OH: Help Me Grow of Cuyahoga County, 2005). 

  2. Head Start Bureau, “Assessing Family Crisis.” Excerpts from Training Guides for the Head Start Learning Community: Supporting Families in Crisis (Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration for Children, Youth and Families, 2000), https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/mental-health/article/assessing-family-crisis

How To

Here are some general strategies to consider.

  • Have home visitors work in pairs, particularly when they go into more dangerous neighborhoods. Accompany home visitors, if needed.
  • Forge a relationship with the local police department. When police are aware of home visitors’ presence in the community, they may be able to provide greater protection. For example, they can arrange for training on self-defense strategies and safety information as well as alert home visitors to the most dangerous neighborhoods and the safest times of day to visit them.
  • Provide cellphones, beepers, or other communication devices. Work with finance and other program staff to ensure there are funds in the budget to cover this.
  • Involve families in home visitor safety. They often know of potential safety hazards in the neighborhood (e.g., crack houses, gang activity) and can inform home visitors of the safest way to travel through the neighborhood.
  • Work with program administrators and community resources to develop crisis protocols and make sure home visitors are aware of the protocols. Provide opportunities for home visitors to practice protocols in role-plays. Consider the following protocol topics; add ones that are relevant for your program, families, and community:
    • Child abuse/child neglect
    • Domestic violence (adult)
    • Substance abuse (alcohol, other drugs), including presence of an intoxicated adult
    • Presence of drugs and drug paraphernalia/sales of illegal substances
    • Detention and deportation
    • Weapons and ammunition in sight
    • Violence in the neighborhood/presence of gangs
    • Homicidal threats
    • Police presence or parental arrest
    • Mental illness/psychiatric emergencies/suicidal plans or attempts
    • Special situations such as presence of a contagious disease (e.g., influenza, tuberculosis, or chicken pox if the home visitor has not been exposed) or communicable condition (e.g., lice, scabies or other skin conditions that are highly transmittable), or presence of animals that threaten the home visitor
    • Eviction/sudden homelessness
  • Make sure that you or another administrator is “on-call” whenever a home visitor is in the field, including after hours and weekends, so that home visitors can get an immediate response when needed.
  • Make sure that you know home visitors’ schedules. This should include the name of the individual or family, the date and time of the visit, the family’s address and phone number (if available), and the home visitor’s expected time of return. Consider creating a standard form with this information for home visitors to complete on a daily or weekly basis.

In addition, you might encourage home visitors to do the following:1

  • Trust their instincts. If they feel unsafe, pay attention to that feeling. If the situation does not feel right, leave, and contact you immediately. If they see something in the home that makes them feel uncomfortable (for example, physical or verbal violence, alcohol/drug use, drug dealing, evidence of firearms, or the presence of acutely intoxicated or otherwise out-of-control individuals), follow established protocols and leave, if necessary. Encourage home visitors to say to the parent, “Maybe this isn’t a good time for a visit. Let’s reschedule.” Home visitors should then contact you. Before going on future visits, encourage home visitors to talk with you about how to ensure their safety in the home. Work with home visitors to talk with the parent about the issues that made them feel uncomfortable and to make referrals if needed.
  • Wear comfortable shoes.
  • Get clear directions to the neighborhood and the home or apartment building, especially for new visits. Take a practice drive to make sure the directions work. Confirm how to enter the home if it is a duplex or apartment.
  • Ask families where it is best to park, and park as close to the home as possible. Always park in well-lit areas. If it is not possible for the home visitor to park in a safe place, she should discuss other options with you such as meeting the family in another setting or being driven and picked up by a co-worker.
  • Put any important or valuable items in the trunk of the car before arriving for the visit. Do not leave these items in view. Carry only enough money to get through the day. Avoid carrying expensive handbags or wearing costly jewelry.
  • Contact parents before a visit so they can be on the lookout for the home visitor.
  • If no one answers the door, sit in the car or drive around the block, rather than wait at the door. Make sure to specify the amount of time home visitors should wait if a family is not home as part of your home visit protocol.
  • Make sure their cars are in good working order and that there is plenty of gas in the tank.
  • Organize belongings so they do not have to take time to search for them. For example, when they leave a home visit, they should have their keys in hand.

  1. Parlakian and Seibel, Help Me Grow Home Visitor Curriculum.